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Howland faces former team when UCLA meets Pittsburgh

Mar 22, 2007 - 1:39 PM No. 3 Pittsburgh (29-7) at No. 2 UCLA (28-5) 9:40 pm EDT

SAN JOSE, California (Ticker) -- If UCLA is going to continue its drive toward another Final Four, it will have to go through coach Ben Howland's creation.

Howland squares off with his former team when the second-seeded Bruins clash with third-seeded Pittsburgh in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament's West Region on Thursday.

Two wins away from a repeat appearance in the Final Four, Howland and the Bruins (28-5) look to smooth out some of their offensive struggles as they face a club that was built on the same foundation - a hard-nosed defense.

"I don't know if it's necessarily a mirror image," UCLA guard Arron Afflalo said about the similarities between the two teams. "Obviously they have a few things we run because of coach Howland's past there. Again, that was five years ago. You know, things have changed."

The architect for both successful programs is Howland, who spent four seasons rebuilding the Panthers from a cellar dweller to Big East Conference tournament champion before leaving for Westwood in 2003.

Helping Howland turn Pittsburgh into a national power was then-assistant Jamie Dixon, who has gone on to guide the Panthers to a 108-29 record since his mentor's departure for the West Coast.

"Bottom line is, this game is about the players," Howland said. "Jamie and I are going to be in this business hopefully for a lot longer than just tomorrow. So the focus in my mind, the NCAA tournament, is about the players. These kids have four years of college basketball. This is a very, very special honor to be this far advanced in the NCAA tournament."

While Howland was able to return Pittsburgh to prominence, he could not quite squeeze out the postseason success he has been able to do with UCLA, which ended an 11-year drought in the Final Four before falling to Florida in the national title game last season.

If the Bruins can fix some of their offensive struggles, another trip may be in the making.

Although it held on for a 54-49 victory over Indiana in the second round, UCLA looked shaky, shooting 36 percent (17-of-47) from the field and coughing up a 13-point lead in the second half.

The Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year, Afflalo was the primary culprit, managing just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting. It was the second disappointing performance in the last three games for the junior guard, who had just three points on 1-of-7 from the field in the Bruins' surprising loss to California in the quarterfinals of the conference tourney.

UCLA did flash its trademark defense, however, limiting Indiana to 13 points in the first half en route to its best defensive showing of the season.

Pittsburgh (29-7) also got a scare as Virginia Commonwealth rallied from a 19-point deficit to force overtime before falling, 84-79.

Sophomore point guard Levance Fields missed two free throws prior to the completion of regulation before hitting a 3-pointer in the extra session and finishing with 10 points and four assists.

While UCLA looks to improve to 7-2 in the NCAAs under Howland, the Pittsburgh will try put an end to some of its postseason struggles. The Panthers have lost their last three games in the regional semifinals dating to 2002.

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    PITTSBURGH 26 29 55
    UCLA 32 32 64 FINAL

    Mar 23 12:08 AM
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    (2) UCLA 32 HALFTIME

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    Pittsburgh vs. UCLAMar 22 9:54 PM